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Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy
Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy
Saskia Sassen
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
304 pp., $31.00

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Noah Toly


Terrible Simplifiers

Failing to account for the agency of the marginalized.

In a letter dated July 24, 1889, Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt warned his friend Friedrich von Preen, "My mental picture of those terribles simplificateurs[simplifiers] who will one day descend upon our old Europe is not an agreeable one. In my imagination I can visualize these ruffians in the flesh before my eyes and will describe them to you when we are having our pint together in September." Burckhardt feared the emergence of trends that he had described to von Preen almost a decade earlier. In an 1881 letter, he wrote of "a power" that would one day "make short work with voting rights, sovereignty of the people, material wellbeing, industry, etc., and will stand upon small ceremony. For this will be the inevitable end of the State based on the rule of law once it has succumbed to mere numbers and the consequences." Burckhardt dreaded a future in which increasingly complex technical capabilities would enable the pursuit and possession of unimaginable material welfare but would, at the same time, flatten social relations. He predicted that élites employing logics of generalization and abstraction would not merely enhance our capabilities but also attenuate relationships, sharpen the division between classes, and decrease our sense of individual agency.

Many of the same preoccupations lie at the heart of Saskia Sassen's Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. The question motivating Sassen's analysis: "Is much of today's society tending toward the condition of brutal simplicity against which the great historian Jacob Burckhardt warned in the nineteenth century?" Sassen recasts Burckhardt's simplification as a betrayal in which capabilities that "should have served to develop the social realm, to broaden and strengthen the well-being of a society [and] the biosphere … [have instead] too often served to dismember the social through extreme inequality, to destroy much ...

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